Tik-Tok

Tik-Tok - John Sladek; DAW, 1985  cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok – John Sladek; DAW, 1985 cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1937 – 2000) was first published in 1983.  It won the 1984 British Science Fiction Association Award.  I read the DAW 1985 edition with cover art by Peter Gudynas.  At 254 pages, this is a relatively fast read, nothing overwhelmingly difficult or causing brain-drain.

The whole novel is something of a vicious satirical autobiography of the title character, a robot named Tik Tok.  This name should be familiar to all of those who are acquianted with L. Frank Baum’s Oz series.  In that series, a servant “mechanical man” is named Tik Tok. Using flashbacks this autobiography, Me, Robot, is a parody of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot novel.  Parodying Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Sladek utilizes the story of a robot to heap condemnation upon human society.  In essence, the novel is not Tik-Tok, but rather Me, Robot and we are shown the worst of humanity through the eyes of the character Tik Tok.

When I say “the worst of humanity,” I think many readers may skim that phrase.  Sladek traipses his robot character through many aspects of human society – the taboo, the ridiculous, the morally decrepit – and despises them.  However, Sladek (and therefore Tik Tok) keep a distant and rather deadpan reaction throughout.  Readers may be more accustomed to virulent and emotional ravings about the ills of society and so be surprised when, here, they come upon a muted bluntly stated criticism.

At most, Tik Tok expresses only a vague surprise at the depths of immorality and ridiculousness that humanity affects. Nevertheless, the experiences that Tik Tok shares in his autobiography are from all locations, walks of life, and classes of people.  In particular, the tactless yuppie and the ennui of the absurdly wealthy are highlighted.  However, a Southern plantation family’s fall from grace, religious organizations, politics – in and out of America, sports, art and artisan lifestyles, hippies, activist groups, health care and medical organizations, commercialism, etc. are all mocked and shown to be farcical.

The storyline of Tik Tok is only interesting insofar as reading about robots is interesting.  Tik Tok is mostly honest and only once witty to a noteworthy extent, so his autobiography is more so about the reactions humans have toward him.  His “owners” have been from a variety of walks of life – but all possessed of a wretchedness that is characteristically (as Tik Tok sees it) human.  They are stupid, conniving, vicious, sadistic, perverted, immoral, sycophantic, hedonist, and lazy.  Even the game-players are cheaters.  This book is about as anti-human, anti-compassionate, nihilist, and bitter as any book I know of.  But the most horrific element of humanity as depicted in this novel is that they are all totally and willingly blinded to truths that they do not like; i.e. that a robot can be just as evil as they are.

There were times when I wondered whether the asimovs even existed.  It was very easy to imagine that there were no asimov circuits, but that people and robots had both been conned into believing in programmed slavery.  The idea of turning moral decisions into digital data (and screening out wrong ones) was powerful and attractive.  People wanted it to be true.  They wanted robots incapable of sin, trustworthy slaves.  So of course the manufacturers of robots would invent imaginary circuits to make it so.  Ecce robo, they’d say.  Here is a happy slave with a factory guarantee of trustworthiness. – chapter E, pg. 63

From the first chapter to the last, humans deceiving themselves as to what robots are capable of is constantly thrown at the reader. It seems ludicrous and absurd that humans are so clueless to such an extent.  There are incidents spoofing the Titanic, religious evangelists, and even fast-food.

The old-fashioned hamburger was, in some run-down areas, no longer made of genuine soya, but was bulked out with chili-favored sawdust, celery-taste cotton waste, and so on, ending up so highly flavored that no new additive would be detected.  – Chapter S, pg. 216

The criticism and bitterness toward humanity is actually so profound that it seems difficult to believe that Sladek wrote this in the early 1980s, because it surely seems still relevant today.  And while I am not usually a fan of “over the top” miserableness, I appreciate the work in this novel.  The current “hype” of pseudo-dystopian literature seems outright heroic and also part of that “total, willing denial” of reality when compared to this novel. This book is decidedly not for everyone.  Good for when a mostly intelligent reader feels sick of society and is repulsed by the plastic, immoral, and gross face of humanity.  Tick tock…

4 stars

Citizen in Space

Citizen in Space – Robert Sheckley; Ballantine, 1955; cover art: Richard Powers

I finished the short story collection Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005).  It was first published in 1955 and contains twelve stories – the majority of which had appeared in Galaxy Magazine.  I have recently been stuck in the 1950s as far as my reading goes, and the cover of this book looks so colorful that it always catches my eye.  Richard Powers created this cover.  Anyway, this is the first Sheckley I have read, although I have heard from a variety of sources that he is one of the “grandmasters” of science fiction short story writing.  I reviewed a collection by Kornbluth and then one by Sturgeon not too long ago, so I feel I was really into the swing things with short stories.  Sometimes, a reader feels like a great novel, sometimes just shorter works are perfect for the day.

In all of these stories, Sheckley is critical of society.  He questions the current conceptions of civilization qua civilization.  His best questioning, I think, comes when he highlights the paradoxes and contrary outcomes of intentional ethical scenarios/acts, etc.  In other words, when Sheckley presents characters whose acts conclude in unexpected – unintended – ways, his stories excel. In many places, Sheckley plays on the idea of concepts that are heavily influenced by a limited perspective.  And sometimes, this even results in peeking at simulacra, which I find super fun in science fiction.

Here are the stories in this collection:

  • The Mountain Without a Name – 3 stars – (1955)
  • The Accountant – 3 stars – (1954)
  • Hunting Problem – 5 stars – (1955)
  • A Thief in Time – 2 stars – (1954)
  • The Luckiest Man in the World – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Hands Off – 5 stars – (1954)
  • Something for Nothing – 4 stars – (1954)
  • A Ticket to Tranai – 5 stars – (1955)
  • The Battle – 2 stars – (1954)
  • Skulking Permit – 4 stars – (1954)
  • Citizen in Space – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Ask a Foolish Question – 4 stars – (1953)

The Mountain Without a Name is the first story in the book.  I gave this one three stars because I felt it was precisely what a science fiction story should be; a solid start to the book.  The frustration of the main character, Morrison, is evident and the environmental ethics of terraforming as a commercial enterprise drive the storyline.  Primitives and magic also play a role here – juxtaposed against the final quote of the book “Where do we go from here?” (a question the primitives wouldn’t know how to ask).

The Accountant is more fantasy than science fiction.  It is a relatively “cute” story – the main character is interesting.  Here is a witty, critical commentary on society.  However, like all of Sheckley’s critiques and complaints – done in a gentle and oblique manner. Again, three stars.

Hunting Problems did not start too highly in my esteem. I really do not go in for “coming of age” stories.  However, the occasional alien terminology/vocabulary interested me.  I’ll be honest:  I loved the ending.  The human characters are a bit “plastic” and “stereotypical,” but maybe that’s okay for this story.  Sheckley’s got a little more obvious disdain here for the humans than he usually shows in other stories. Still, five stars….

A Thief in Time was only a decent, basic read.  I’m not a fan of time-travel paradox stories.  Too much jammed into this one made it annoying and made me wonder why authors ever attempt time-travel paradox stories.  Of note, this is a story wherein Sheckley explores the concept of utopia, however here it is the stereotypical one. Only two stars for this one.

The Luckiest Man in the World is the shortest work in the book.  It presents an oddly optimistic, pro-science post-apocalyptic scenario.  This is not a new story, per se, but the positivity and optimism seemed “new.”  In any case, it is important to see that of all the challenges mankind faces, it seems the need for society/companionship is one that cannot be conquered by mere science.

Hands Off is one of those “cautionary tales” that one remembers and worries about even if the story isn’t particularly great.  Because in the case in which one finds oneself in an alien environment, all these warnings seem valid and crucial.  This story did seem slightly more heavy-handed than the previous ones, but no matter how overt or blatant, it still had a couple quirky twists and turns.  A good one to have young undergraduates read in their beginning Ethics courses.  Four stars.

Something For Nothing is supremely ironic and witty.  It suggests that greed, haste, assumptions lead to ruin.  But also that man cannot isolate himself from the bigger entity – government, IRS, society, civilization, etc.  There is also a fun quote:  “When the miraculous occurs, only dull, workaway mentalities are unable to accept it.”  Anyway, something for nothing / something out of nothing.  Either way, this is a unique piece. Four stars.

A Ticket To Tranai is one of the longer works in this collection.  It is creative and thought-provoking. Sure, the characters are a bit wooden (in all of these stories, they tend to be – but the main character here is actually named ‘Goodman’), but this is a curious look at intentions and ethics within society.  In this story Sheckley questions the concepts of (again) utopia, ethics, social change, and feminism.  The science fiction takes a backseat here – even though we have gone to the edge of the galaxy – this story is best enjoyed by those who like to play conceptual engineer. I gave this five stars and recommend it for all readers.

Skulking Permit is one of those unpredictable stories where the omniscient reader has to keep shaking their head at the silly characters.  The story is about a long-forgotten Earth colony that has recently been re-contacted by Imperial Earth.  Earth demands that the colony be up to “Earth standards” (which have long since lost any meaning to the colonists). This results in a bit of a farcical comedy. Definitely a unique piece, so I gave it four stars.

Citizen in Space is the title of the collection and though I gave it three stars, I cannot say I was really thrilled by the story.  It is good fiction, also a bit light on the science and a bit heavier on the “criticize society” parts.  Nevertheless, it is all couched in a lovely witty amusement that is good entertainment. Three stars.

Finally, the collection ends with Ask a Foolish Question.  This is the most esoteric of pieces in the collection.  Many readers who are not given to contemplation or introspection may not tolerate this one.  However, philosophers will be amused by this. The underlying suggestion is valid, if not obvious.  It is interesting and novel to see this wrapped in any kind of science fiction.  Four stars.

Overall, this is a great collection of really good stories.  The science fiction is present but not overwhelming.  All of the characters are wooden – like any true 1950s science fiction – but the concepts and the ideas are priceless.  Above all, entertainment is not sacrificed for any sort of ideology-mongering or attempt to seem philosophical.  These are amusing and clever and should be enjoyed by most (if not all) readers. I am definitely going to read more Sheckley.

4 stars

A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs was first published in serial form in 1912.  It was published as a complete work in book form in 1917.  I read this in 2014 – so quite some time after it was first released.  I feel like between 1912 and 2014 several generations of humans have read and reviewed and commented on this work.  Allegedly, it influenced a whole slew of authors and writings.  So, what could I add to all that has been said already?  Whatever could be said, has most likely already been said.

I read this book in several formats:  on my Kindle, in an omnibus, and in a single-copy format. Whichever format was closest at hand, I picked up and read.  There have been heaps of editions for this novel. I think the most famous are the Michael Whelan and the Frank Frazetta covers.  The digital copy that I read included the original 1917 cover art.

This novel is quite full of action and adventure – bursting with it, really, to the point where, as a reader, I was exhausted with the non-stop action.  However, in the first quarter of the novel, there is a good deal more speculation and the story has a drop’s worth more explanation than the last chunk.  For example, in chapter one (On the Arizona Hills), our intrepid hero John Carter shares with us:

My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes.  However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.

I think that little quote from early in the novel basically sums up John Carter’s personality and worldview – and therefore explains all of his actions and choices henceforth.  I think there are about a dozen ways to interpret this personality.  Impulsive and rash are examples of an unflattering interpretation.  I think this blends, though, with Carter’s odd and extreme “love” for Dejah Thoris.  It is love at first sight with these two. Perhaps the love is born of some overprotective masculine view of a “damsel in distress,” but it seems to morph into some Helen of Troy for whom a thousand ships are launched scenario.  After all, we are told – repeatedly – there is nothing that Carter won’t do for his beloved Dejah.  This love element is believable and honest.  But after awhile, by chapter 20 or so, it gets tedious and I started to think:  “Hey dude, seriously, this chick is not worth all this.”   What is so great about Dejah?  She is a hot babe.  And she’s a princess. Other than that, she’s pretty dull and pathetic.  Carter kind of agrees with this, too. After all in chapter eleven he is conversing with her and after she shares her opinion he thinks:

It was good logic, good, earthly, feminine logic, and if it satisfied her I certainly could pick no flaws in it.

Feminine logic. Which is not really logic at all, is it? It’s basically belief/emotion. Certainly not rational and scientific.  Now, let’s not be too picayune, but do compare this comment to the earlier quote wherein Carter admits that his is a rash and impulsive mind – not given to “tiresome mental processes.”  Maybe he just really bonds with this “feminine logic” stuff?  Don’t tell him I said that, he is an indefatigable swordsman!

In chapter sixteen we are given another gem of Carter’s savvy ways with women:

I verily believe that a man’s way with women is in inverse ratio to his prowess among men.  The weakling and the saphead have often great ability to charm the fair sex, while the fighting man who can face a thousand real dangers unafraid, sits hiding in the shadows like some frightened child.

And there you have it. . . .

Well, the reason I mentioned most of this is because this romance is actually the motive and driving force of the plot.  Not, believe it or not, the thirst for survival or the desire to return to Earth.  Carter is perfectly thrilled to stay on Mars forever – as long as he has his Dejah Thoris. So, I guess it’s a decent idea to understand the motives for this whole thing.

A Princess of Mars – E. R. B.; cover art: F. Frazetta

The action in the book is non-stop.  It reads like the most action-filled comic book, just one scenario after another involving magnificent feats of daring, physical ability, and bravery.  Climbing, flying, chasing, running, swordsmanship, jumping, etc.  John Carter is beyond Olympian-level awesome at everything.  I think I got a bit tired toward the end – back and forth among tribes and warriors, back and forth, back and forth. I don’t know; I feel like Burroughs probably spent more time on the first half of the book than the second.  Nevertheless, it is easy to see how this novel lends itself to live-action film. And it is typical of pulp-adventure stories, so the amount of action is not surprising. But the interesting facets, peppering the novel during Carter’s exploits, are cool – and could easily draw in a reader who is searching for imaginative science fiction.  For example, the Atmosphere Machine. I need more about that.

Anyway, I intend to read the next in the series – eventually. No hurry here.

4 stars

The Big Time

The Big Time – Fritz Leiber; ACE, 1982; cover art: Vincent Di Fate

I finished The Big Time by Fritz Leiber in a day and a half.  I just sped through this book!  Well, I am going to say right now at the beginning of this review:  this is not a book everyone can appreciate.  I wholeheartedly believe to get the five-star rating (that I am bestowing on this novel), you have to be partially insane.  You have to be able to see the absurdity in things, you have to have a big and strong imagination, and you have to have wit in spades.  Now, I do not make any claims regarding whether the converse is true, i.e. if you do not like it, it is because you have no wit/imagination, etc.  However, I do think if you take everything seriously and have little or no sense of humor, you will really have a ranting raving “review” to write if you read this book!

The Big Time was first published in 1958.  I read the ACE 1982 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  Whole volumes have been written on the author – he was an interesting fellow with ups and downs and excitements galore.  Nevertheless, this is the first work I have read by him.  He was a preacher, an actor, an alcoholic, and a chessman.  He was supposedly influenced by the famous authors of the early 1900s, including H. P. Lovecraft (well, who wasn’t?).   The Big Time reads a lot like how one might expect an author with this resume to write.  And for a whole mess of readers out there – it is uncomfortable and disappointing.

There is a very short introduction to this novel written by the author and a bit of a longer afterword (previously the 1976 introduction to this story) by Robert Thurston.  Without these two guideposts, I am not sure I would have made it through the book.  If your edition does not have these bits, good luck!

I started reading this novel and I was confused; the thing is jumbled and silly.  Everything – every word – seems completely random.  It seem to start in media res, but who can tell?  And the narrator – how I hated the narrator with an immense and fiery wrath!  It seemed the narrator was unfocused, dumb as a brick, and personified the worst elements of certain stereotypes.  Now, do not get me wrong – I have read plenty of “in media res” novels.  Also, I am relatively okay with things that are zany and oblique.  But this!!! This was atrocious and I very nearly put the book into the “Going to Thrift Store Pile.”  If it weren’t for the guideposts of the introduction and the afterword, I swear I would not have made it through.

The characters number twelve.  Each one is relatively significant/important to the plot of the book.  Greta is the main character and narrator.  She is the one that immediately induced violent repulsed reactions in me.  By the end of the novel, I am cheering for her and I think she is a hoot-and-a-half. Complete turnarounds for characters, like this, are remarkably rare.

The back of the book (and the description found in many places online) reads:  This is war:  The biggest, longest war that anyone could imagine.  The soldiers are recruited at the moment of death to fight through all of time.  The goal is to change the past, and insure victory in the future.  The Change Winds are blowing.  Welcome to the Big Time.  And from this – I think the reader may expect a war story? Or a commentary on warfare?  Or even a unique (and fun) concept which puts a variety of soldiers from a variety of eras onto the battlefield at once. . .  But this is a key problem; the reader should not believe the hype! Sure, that is the overall framework of this novel, but only as a vague “background.”

As I read along, I kept wondering about the Snakes and the Spiders (the two alleged sides of the war).  When are we going to learn about them? What are they like? Why are they doing this? What strategies do they use?  What side do we wish we were on?  All of these questions and more I found myself asking and never coming upon the answers.  So, there is this really aggravated curiosity that was being developed and though I was hating the book, I kept reading (thankfully!).  I suspect most readers stop at this point because they get too frustrated.

Then suddenly, I found pieces falling into place (and after reading this novel, I do want to always capitalize “Place”).  And I started to care about the characters and the storyline.  Not everything was roses and smiles, but I was doing a lot better and somehow Greta had wormed her way into my heart and I was appreciating her random and silly exclamations, outbursts, and sarcasm.

Except Bruce and Lili, who were still holding hands and beaming gently.  I decided they were the kind of love that makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me.  It just gives me two people to worry about. – pg. 64, Chapter 6

Greta’s narration is really a stream of consciousness.  For better or worse, though, she isn’t one of the great minds of the kosmos.  She’s an Entertainer, which in this novel is something like a therapist, nurse, call-girl, and waitress.  So, she interrupts herself, uses slang, makes silly exclamations, and loses her train of thought.

Somehow (or by the sheer magic of insanity + genius) the storyline moves along.  Bruce Marchant, on page 72, jumps up onto the bartop and begins a rousing speech that both questions the premise of the whole novel, and also causes turmoil among each and every character.  Leiber makes the character do this by a simple prop from earlier in the book:  a black glove from Chapter Two.  So what seemed extremely random earlier, is now connecting characters and plotline and I became a fully-engaged reader.

The rousing speech causes the characters to choose sides.  Presumably, all the characters are on the army of the Spiders…. now they have to “willingly” choose to be on Bruce’s side or the militant’s side.  And each side has its own motives to consider.  There is tension and fighting and surprises.  Finally, the story actually turns into a sort of mystery.  The characters and I are all trying to solve a mystery.  The tension is eased here and there by the now-amusing Greta.  She has a helluva role to play in the novel, besides just narrate away.

“Here it comes,” I thought, wishing I could faint. On top of everything, on top of death even, they had to drag in the nightmare personally stylized for me, the horror with my name on it.  I wasn’t going to be allowed to blow up peacefully.  They weren’t satisfied with an A-bomb.  They had to write my private hell into the script.  – pg. 142, Chapter 14

The resolution is interesting and fun.  It also seems to work out alright for each character.  The last chapter allows a brief return to a deeper speculation as to what The Big Time is and what is going on with this Change War and whatnot with the Spiders vs. Snakes.  I feel it works for those readers who simply cannot let go of the idea that that is what the novel is about.  But for me, it was inconsequential. Not bad, just not needed.

This novel is weird and has weird elements – things that made me truly think that only an insane person could come up with them.  And then the idea of squashing all of this in an outside-of-time/space war?  With a spare number of distinct characters? Genius. And insane.  This novel, over many I have read, walks the perfect line between genius and insanity.  It also presents a slew of concepts to toy around with as far as space/time/zombies.  If you like time travel stories or novels wherein “time is out of joint,” this is for you. So fans of PKD and Douglas Adams will love this. As in PKD (Cp. UBIK) not every artefact is explained – if you need it explained, you might as well read a different book.  I loved this because I was both amused and impressed.  Be advised, not all readers will stomach this – but if you make the attempt, just keep reading!

5 stars

The Explorers

The Explorers – C. M. Kornbluth; Ballantine; cover: Jack Faragasso; 1963 edition

Still happily stuck in the 1950s, I finished The Explorers by C. M. Kornbluth well-past any respectable bedtime hour.  This is one of those reviews wherein I have to be fair and honest and give a mathematical rating that seems low and yucky.  However, the rating – though my math was correct – does not truly represent the value of this work.  So, an uncomfortable rating.  Therefore, reader, do not put too much emphasis on said rating.

The cover for this book is a delicious vintage cover by Jack Faragasso.  I read the second edition, but both the first and second use this same great artwork.  I suppose it is only slightly misleading because this is not a collection containing a whole lot of story about astronauts, per se. I feel like certain readers may be put off by such an overt (yet still awesome!) expression of “traditional” science fiction artwork.  Anyway, this is a collection of stories/novelettes [I still dislike that word] that were previously written and published – especially in genre magazines and periodicals.  At 145 pages, these nine stories are perfectly sized for a delightful weekend read.

This collection was first published as a unit in 1954.  The second edition, which I read, was published in 1963.  This is the first item that I have read by Kornbluth, although I am aware that he collaborated with fellow author Frederik Pohl.  The collection The Best of C. M. Kornbluth (1976) also contains five of the stories published in The Explorers.  Presumably, this suggests that this collection is a really good representation of Kornbluth’s skill/style.

  • Gomez – 3 stars – (1954)
  • The Mindworm – 4 stars – (1950)
  • The Rocket of 1955 – 1 star – (1941)
  • The Altar at Midnight – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Thirteen O’Clock – 3 stars – (1941)
  • The Goodly Creatures – 1 star – (1952)
  • Friend to Man – 4 stars – (1951)
  • With These Hands – 3 stars – (1951)
  • That Share of Glory – 5 stars – (1952)

 This comes out to be an average of 3 stars.  The fact that there are two 1-star stinkers brings that down quite a bit.  However, I have to say, one of those stinkers (The Rocket of 1955) is like a page and a half of text; ‘short story’ is overstating it.  So, that 1 star probably shouldn’t have much weight to it.  It’s also an early work of Kornbluth’s, so we can always argue that he had not yet found his writing comfort zone.

Gomez is a decent read – a bit longish, I feel.  It is average 1950s fare, it forces the reader to consider concepts like duty and nationalism in the scope of science.  The author probably wants the reader to empathize with the narrator and sympathize with the main (title) character, but I’m a hard case and my Grinch-heart wasn’t feeling this one.

The Mindworm, however, surprised me.  It is probably the darkest piece in the book – there is a hefty dose of “mysteriousness” which leaves a lot of the thing open to interpretation.  There is a sort of non-human entity (mindworm) who preys on the degenerate of society.  It escapes difficulty by continuously moving around the country in his “host” body. And no one really cares when criminals and scrubs are found dead.  However, this entity runs to West Virginia – where he encounters a new paradigm that does not react as all the other people in the past have acted.  This is a vampire-story extraordinaire.  Eastern Europeans, still speaking their Old World languages, “deal with the scenario.”  And there is this comparison within the story of insular cultures and also how “old” ethnic groups remember things – but its all really subtle.  Another subtle element:  in this locale, the Mindworm kills a virgin girl – in West Virginia.

The Altar at Midnight was great.  For me it recalled the recent James E. Gunn and Barry N. Malzberg that I had read.  It is has an excellent ending and the story is perfectly-sized and complete.  I really liked this one – mainly because it is, if nothing else, a powerful story.

Thirteen O’Clock got an average rating from me.  It is one of Kornbluth’s earliest works.  It is completely weird and pulpy.  It is far less science fiction and far more cruddy fantasy.  It has this heavy-handed morality lesson about Big Business and Tyranny that gets thrown at the reader.  The characters agree and we all go home. However, there are some elements in this story that had me chuckling.  I admit it, I like a little sarcasm and silliness.  So, this is not a good story, but it provides a good mid-book humor.  Also, a clock with 13 hours appeals to all of my autistic tendencies.

The Goodly Creatures seems really dated.  And I hated it.  I did not feel any sympathy for the main character.  I wanted the story to go somewhere, but it did not. I kept waiting for it to really go places, but instead loser main character has a moment. The end.

Friend to Man was the only story that actually got to my heartstrings and played a chord or two.  And then wham! Surprise ending! And then there was much cheering and celebration from me.  Like many of Kornbluth’s stories in this book, it is a ruminating on ethics/morality.  In this story we are no longer on Earth and we meet an interesting alien lifeform.  Great twist story, containing noir-esque plot.  Bravo!

With These Hands only got 3 stars from me because it is ridiculously dismal.  And maybe I have a different conception of “aesthetics” than Kornbluth?  Anyway, this is one sad, dark read.  In a sense Kornbluth does work hard to tie much of the plot to actual historical artworks, artists, and themes.  Even places (Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, etc.) but I am not sure it works? I wanted it to, but it fell a bit flat.  This is a bit disappointing because it is clear that Kornbluth is a learned and intelligent writer.  And this particular story showcases a reality that could happen today or tomorrow.

Finally, That Share of Glory is the masterpiece of this book.  It is a fantastic read – it appeals to my Catholicism and my Philosophical training and my love of linguistics and ethics and even the little Karl Marx in me thrilled at this.  Hello, all my friends: Machiavelli, Marx, John Stuart Mill, et al.  I loved this story – because the concept is exciting.  Kornbluth did not make a character with pathetic flaws – he made one that is consistent and strong – but yet causes him a crisis!  And adventure! This is a great story and I want more of it. I want a whole series of it, frankly.  Let’s just say a “monastic” order that operates as the galaxy’s “communicators/anthropologists” etc. and uses such for both political and economic structure – well, yes, hands down, 5 stars!

Overall, the stories are all unpredictable.  Kornbluth turns a critical eye on society and science.  However, what is great is that his eye, while critical, is not miserable.  He does not possess that dreary misanthropic feeling that so many authors seem to equate with “critical.”  Also, I enjoy his “morality tales” in this book.  He does a lot of interesting things hinging on ethics and ethical situations – but without any gross heaviness and obnoxiousness.  I recommend this for all those interested in vintage science fiction and for those people who like good stories with minimal (stereotypical) science fiction.

3 stars

The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home – Poul Anderson; Ace 1978

I am stuck in 1955 – 1958.   I just finished Poul Anderson’s The Long Way Home.  It was originally published in bits in 1955 as No World of Their Own, but then re-assembled in 1958 as The Long Way Home.  I think; honestly, the history of this particular work is a somewhat sketchy.  My copy is the Ace February 1978 edition with the fun Michael Whelan cover art.  It has a very short introduction by the author:

This novel was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction.  The paperback book edition appeared as No World of Their Own.  That was not my idea, nor were the cuts which mutilated the text.  Both have remained until now, when editor Jim Baen generously gave me a chance to restore things.

In such cases, it is always a temptation to go ahead and rewrite, with the benefit of many additional years’ experience.  I have refrained from that.  Although today I would handle the tale rather differently, it is, I think, a good story as it stands.

I read this, mainly, because it is the earliest Poul Anderson novel that I currently own.  I already knew enough about Anderson to have an idea of what to expect.  Anderson writes about sociological/political themes, theories, and backgrounds.  He was a writer that brings good things to the genre.  By this I mean that he is not just creating action-pulp stories with creepy aliens.  Anderson utilizes the genre to delve into a variety of sociological/political scenarios that are “conceptually-relevant.”

This novel is written with a bluntness that sometimes is too direct.  There is no finesse.

Peggy was dead.  For five thousand years she had been dust, darkness in her eyes and mold in her mouth, for five thousand years she had not been so much as a memory.  He had held back the realization, desperately focusing himself on the unimportant details of survival, but it was entering him now like a knife. pg. 37, Chapter 3

The sentence structure is not beautiful whatsoever.  There are many places where the writing seems as droll and banal as if we were reading a dry engineering textbook.  This is not a crushing condemnation of the author’s style, but it seems to me if you want to write sociology – do so, and write articles, texts, etc.  If you want to write fiction – work on sprucing it up a bit. Here we could have a good discussion regarding “form and function,” but I don’t know that anyone besides myself would be reading along.  Pretend the discussion has occurred – move to next paragraph of this review.

So, what Anderson does do very well is to create a far-flung future in which very specific (psychological) characteristics of humans are magnified and driven to their “conclusion.”  Anderson is presenting a number of ideas here that may interest certain readers.  For example, what makes humans inquisitive?  Is a one-world-incorruptible governing body the best possible government for civilization?  Is there always to be a sort of caste system in human civilization – based on intelligence, perhaps?  What factors cause humanity to become stagnant?  Can the extent of possible progress be reached?

All of these questions (which are not as delineated as I have made them) are rolled into the scenario of a Dune-like scheming background.  Several interest groups (economic, local, foreign) are all trying to get their hands on an alien who was traveling with the main character, Edward Langely.  This alien is actually the only truly creative element in the entire novel.  Saris Hronna is, basically, a humanoid-cat, from a far away planet.  He is also equipped with a type of telepathy and among his people is a style of philosopher.  Once this novel gets going, he quickly becomes a fugitive and provides the impetus for most of the action of the novel.

Overall, the novel is interesting because of the commentary/questions Anderson presents in the sociological arena.  However, the main character is repetitive and bland.  The other characters are flat and are just there to represent the three factions.  Most of the book is in dialogue format, wherein the characters give us very general information about what this future looks like and what their opinions on humanity are.  The resolution of the whole novel is rather neat – it made me give a nod to it, but it is nothing wildly creative and exciting.  This is a good novel if you are into vintage science fiction and/or sociology.  A lot of readers who devour current science fiction books might not be interested in this thing.  It does not really “show its age,” because Anderson keeps the whole thing so general.  And maybe that’s the worst part of the whole thing – it is all too general and broad.

3 stars

Station in Space

Station in Space – James E. Gunn; Bantam; 1958

Station in Space by James E. Gunn (b. 1923) is the second book that I have read by the author.  Station in Space was published in 1958, but its contents were all previously published.  I don’t know if I would call this a novel or even a “fix-up” novel.  It is not a collection of short stories, either – because all five pieces in this book actually tell a linear, if broad, story.

The first piece in this book is The Cave of Night.  It was originally published in 1955 in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine.  It was also adapted into an episode of the NBC radio show X-Minus-One.  It aired on February 1, 1956 and was adapted by Ernest Kinoy.  I started reading and did not really like any of it, but somehow it hooked me.  It was more emotionally drawing than I expected it to be.  And I did not expect any of the last two pages.  Other savvy readers will, but for me it was a surprise.  So, the author gives a good grippy setup and then WHAM! he turns the tables on us.  Very cool. A story from the perspective of an American observing the space program.

The next section is Hoax.  This was originally from 1955 If magazine.  This introduces the character Amos Danton, a young man who is leaving for the orbital space station for the first time. He meets grizzled space veterans and is faced with the authentic dangers and miseries of life not “Inside” (on Earth).  We learn a lot about Cadet Amos in this story that will play a role in the rest of the book.  At this point, I had read the first two pieces in this book and was surprised by how good they were and also impressed with Gunn’s writing skill.  A story from the perspective of a young man going to the station, leaving behind his mother, his childhood, and the Academy.

I had read an earlier novel by Gunn and though it had plenty of good ideas, it was a little “out-in-left-field” and the writing itself was a bit awkward.  In these shorter works, Gunn’s writing skill shows through.  His characters have depth because Gunn lets the reader consider the situations and come to their own opinion of the character.  Spacemen, we learn, have some similar standout characteristics:  stubbornness, dreams and drive, ambition, and resilience.

The third piece is The Big Wheel, originally found in Fantastic Universe, 1956.  This is the longest of the three so far and it starts with a rather unique scenario.  In fact, Gunn is at his most profound in this story.  He gives us quick thoughts on clothes, economics, and the plight of the worker.  Bruce Patterson is the main character in this story, but as I reader I was really pulling for all the guys to succeed and survive. Kendrix is one of characters in this mix – he’s an ex-professor and he is the mouthpiece for a lot of criticism toward society and the government/economy.  He makes some salient points in his brief rants, but I swear some of these quotes were lifted from Gunn’s earlier work, This Fortress World.

“There speaks humanity!” Kendrix cried, pointing.  “Listen to it snore! Don’t disturb it with truths. Like an angry bear, it will smash the man who wakes it.  Sleep, my friend. Sleep on. When the world collapses around you, sleep, sleep. . . “

In any case, this is a story about the men who are struggling for jobs to support themselves/their family.  They have been selected for this “investment” project – to build the Big Wheel – a big orbital in space. The training is grueling.  The reason behind the entire project calls into question a number of opinions and beliefs. And it is also a realistic look at the demands of a space program.

The next section is Powder Keg, originally found in If, April 1958.  I did not love this one as much as I liked the others – but there can be no doubt that it is a solid, well-written entry.  In this piece, we meet Air Force psychologist Lloyd Phillips as he blasts off to the orbital under orders to discover if the men there are sane and can be counted on.  Of course, the orders come from a General who has motives and psychological issues which impinge on the situation heavily.  Phillips is forced into the miserable nerve-racking station. He meets insubordination, rudeness, challenge.  He also undergoes the strain of an emergency which threatens the lives of all the crew.  And he is forced to realize the situation on the station is not understood by those “Inside” (back on Earth.)  This story is tough on humans. It portrays them as heroic and honest, but also stubborn, difficult, and intractable.

Venture Science Fiction – May 1957

The final story, Space is a Lonely Place is my favorite of the bunch.  It is a really good piece to end this collection.  Here is a story about men making the strained trip to Mars. And of all the harrowing, ship-bound, “out of food/water/O2 stories that fill out the science fiction genre, I really like this one the best.  It is kind of what Gateway (F. Pohl) should have gotten right.  This is one creepy, disturbing, morally-challenging, gripping story. Shepherd! (You will understand after reading it!) Holy cow, Shepherd!  And the last line in the story is a statement by Lloyd Phillips and it is so creepy and eerie it seems straight out of The Twilight Zone and Hitchcock.  I actually own the magazine wherein it first appeared:  Venture Science Fiction, May 1957.

Anyway, I loved this collection – more so as it was put together, than anything separately. It reads really well.  And this is science fiction without ray guns and aliens.  It is science fiction from the mid-1950s that deals directly with the space program – and the dreams and demands of mankind regarding it.  I appreciated the psychological elements the most, I think. The economic scenario was not lost on me, and I could grant that some good marks.  But overall, Gunn captures the concept of mankind’s indefatigable “dreams” and what mankind will sacrifice for dreams – how dreams are this driving force, shoving man across frontiers and boundaries, having him take risks over and over again.

5 stars

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